Cigarette Tax Hike Moves in Maryland
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 25, 1999; Page B1
The Maryland House of Delegates gave preliminary approval yesterday to a $1 increase in the cost of a pack of cigarettes, moving the state closer to having the highest such tax in the nation.
The measure, billed as a deterrent to teen smoking, has pitted health advocates against rural lawmakers who represent tobacco farmers. And it has caused some consternation among legislators who think tax increases during times of plenty are wrong.
Final House approval could come this week, and the fight would then move to the Senate, where the measure is opposed by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Prince George's). Miller, whose district includes tobacco farmers, has said a $1 tax is too high, but he hasn't said what might be acceptable.
Tobacco farming has a rich history in Maryland, and opponents of the increase argued that some people won't be satisfied until they run the state's remaining farmers out of business by increasing taxes and banning the places where smoking is allowed.
But those arguments were unsuccessful, as House members agreed to increase the cigarette tax by 50 cents a year over the next two years.
If approved by the full General Assembly, the increase would be Maryland's first since 1992. Maryland now adds 36 cents to the cost of each pack of cigarettes, compared with 65 cents in the District and 2.5 cents in Virginia. The new Maryland tax would eventually be $1.36 a pack, higher than the nation's leading $1-a-pack tax levied in Hawaii and Alaska.
At Gov. Parris N. Glendening's urging, D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) has said he would consider raising the District's rate if Maryland succeeds in increasing its own tax.
"This is a great victory for the children of Maryland," said Vincent DeMarco, executive director of the Maryland Children's Initiative. "The House of Delegates stood up to the tobacco lobby and defeated all attempts to weaken or kill the bill."
Concerned that Maryland businesses would suffer, some opponents sought to exempt counties contiguous to other states with lower taxes. And on another sticking point, many lawmakers tried to test the theory that the cigarette tax was just a guise to raise taxes and had little to do with discouraging teenagers from smoking.
Del. James F. Ports Jr. (R-Baltimore County) suggested that all residents older than 18 receive tax refunds for the cigarettes they purchase. And Del. Robert L. Flanagan (R-Howard) urged lawmakers to return the money to taxpayers.
"We've got historic revenue," Flanagan said. "We don't need additional revenues."
The proposals failed. But proponents were forced to acknowledge yesterday that the bill isn't just aimed at curbing teen smoking. It's also about raising revenue. As part of his $8.6 billion spending proposal, Glendening (D) essentially dared lawmakers to reject the tax by saying it was necessary to finance popular projects in their districts.
The tax increase would raise $155 million next year and an additional $90 million the following year, according to state estimates. Glendening earmarked a large portion of that revenue for a half-dozen building projects at state colleges and universities.
"A lot of projects are tied to this tax," said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Howard P. Rawlings (D-Baltimore).
At one point in the debate, frustrated representatives from the tobacco-growing region of Southern Maryland suggested the state ban tobacco sales altogether.
"We recognize that tobacco as a cash crop has seen its last days," said Del. John F. Slade III, a Democrat from St. Mary's County. That attempt failed.
In the Senate, Miller, who also represents parts of Southern Maryland, said the $1-a-pack tax is unnecessary in good economic times. But Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman (D-Baltimore) said some form of the cigarette tax will pass the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee she chairs.
Hoffman wouldn't say how much, but Sen. Christopher Van Hollen Jr. (D-Montgomery), a member of the committee and a supporter of the $1 tax said, "I'm optimistic we'll get a healthy tax out of the committee."
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